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Poltergeist (1982) was producer Steven Spielberg’s immediate precursor to one of the greatest cinematic events of all time E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It is clear from his hand in Poltergeist as to why Spielberg is one of the greatest film makers of all time, being able to capture the haunting reality of these rumbling spirits. Somehow the unrealistic events translate into the real world making the viewer question what is actually in the closet and behind the walls? One of the reasons why Poltergeist works so well is that it feeds on all our fears and curiosities of extraordinary phenomenon. Whether it’s being afraid of the dark, the scary monster-looking tree that looms outside the bedroom window, the freakishly evil clown that sits at the end of our bed and the unknown of what happens to our spirits after death. Perhaps we do all end up as T.V. people?
The actors create an immense feeling of desperation, being bound to a haunted house because their angelic little girl Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is lost somewhere inside with the only communication being through the white noise of the T.V. It’s this baby doll that delivers one of the most recognisable phrases in cinema history “They’re here!” The viewer can’t help to sympathise with the hopeless situation of being bound to such danger for the sake of your child. The younger members of the family Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) portray the real fear through their tears and paralysed nature while Steve (Craig T. Nelson, The Incredibles, The Devil’s Advocate ) and Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Day After) accurately depict the helplessness of parents with a missing child.
The university researcher quack Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) being a middle age woman adds a level of creepiness as she too is terrified by the occurrences in the house. The psychic/medium Tangine (Zelda Rubinstein, Teen Witch) is unusual in appearance and manner. When she enters the film, she renews the energy with a new level of confidence and hope for overcoming the impossible to recover the lost. You can’t forget the family dog who senses the ghostly presence from the beginning and when given the chance leaves the house, standing down from his post as protector and guard.
For the early 80s, the special effects throughout the film are brilliant and retrospectively surpass the CGI of today. Unlike recent movies of a similar genre, Poltergeist doesn’t rely on the effects to carry the story but rather is enhanced by them. The creation of the spirits through lights and imagery is so spectacular that it sends chills running up and down your spine. These illusions: from toys coming to life, furniture moving on its own, an electro-hand like apparition reaching out to touch from the T.V., to being sucked into a throat like portal to another dimension, are visually amazing. The classically symphonic musical score by Jerry Goldsmith enhances all these effects, emotions and drama perfectly.
The success of this hauntingly appealing film led to Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Poltergeist III: The Final Chapter (1988) and a legacy of generations with wild imaginations and a fascination for ghost, spirits and supernatural behaviour.